Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Nonfiction: The Truth About Filipino Old Timers by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

 The following nonfiction piece is part of the anthology Filipinotown: Voices from Los Angeles, edited by Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier, Gerald C. Gubatan, and Gregory Villanueva. This collection of essays about Los Angeles in California was released earlier this year and is now in its second edition (with teachers' guide). Thanks to the editors for including my work. The book is available at 

The Truth About Filipino Old Timers

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

            The very first O.T. (Filipino Old Timer) I heard about was the man who returned to Cebu to marry my mother’s friend, a spinster advanced in years. During afternoon meriendas, I overheard the development of this alliance.
            A crusty lady set in her ways, my mother’s friend refused to migrate to America and the newlyweds lived in her seaside town. It was a poor place which relied only on the sea’s yield and he quickly grew sick of eating fish and rice. He longed for steaks, broccoli, and asparagus; he wanted them both to go to the United States. She adamantly said no and finally he returned to America alone. 

            I got the idea that O.T.’s were displaced human beings after seeing another O.T. in a travel agency. A quiet man with skin like stretched leather, he stood solemnly while his relatives made arrangements for his quick return to the U.S. His children had bought him a round-trip ticket from the U.S. to the Philippines and back. He had not been home in over forty years; it had been his dream to return. But after just a few days in his hometown, he became very unhappy and wanted to leave.
            When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I became scared when an O.T. began trailing me. I was shopping in Westwood Village, and later he even rode my bus. I managed to lose him, but I sometimes wondered why he did that. That summer when I lived with my friend and her uncle, an O.T. – the one married to an ex-nun – I was also puzzled when he followed my friend and me everywhere. I would discover years later that these men, who had generally been isolated from Filipino women, took pleasure in just looking at and being with Filipinas.
            After seeing more of California, I made a mental picture of where these Old Timers worked – on the farms of Salinas; in the canneries of Monterey, perhaps in the Portola Sardine Factory. I imagined Temple Street before the freeways, the raunchy bars and restaurants where they hung out. I knew there were few places where these men could socialize in during the 1940s. Sometime, somewhere, I had seen a poster saying: No Dogs and No Filipinos Allowed.

            I created a stereotype of them, and I pitied these old men who had labored under California’s scorching sun, who were not allowed to marry white women, who had only one another and their card games and their whisky.
            It was Tony who wrecked this mental picture.
            My husband, son, and I used to live in an apartment in Los Angeles, where Tony, an O.T., lived in one of the downstairs apartments. I felt sorry for Tony. He was a small man who wore floppy fedoras, loose coats and baggy pants. I compared him with the elderly in the Philippines who were surrounded by abundant children and grandchildren. I remembered having to kiss the hands of my grandfather and granduncles to greet them. I projected everything I knew about O.T.’s on Tony and I almost wept when I told my husband about him.
            My husband said Tony seemed fine, that he had seen him exit from a bar down the street. Of course, I retorted, the poor man is so miserable, he’s driven to drink. I adopted Tony as a mental relative of sorts; after all, we were both strangers in a strange land.
            I never spoke to him because he was a very private man who came and went without any fuss.  There were, however, occasional strange sounds that came from his apartment. Once, on the way to the laundry room, I walked by his bathroom and heard what seemed to be an animal in great agony. I thought nothing of it.
            When Christmas came, I gave him a box of See’s candies. “I thought you’re Vietnamese married to a G.I.,” he said. The very next day he came knocking and handed me a larger box of See’s candies with an enormous red bow and plastic flowers. He didn’t say anything; he just gave me the box and left.
            As the months passed, Tony continued coming and going as before, and I continued entertaining this vision of him as a pathetic old man. But in the summer, I had to change my view of Tony and about O.T.’s in general.
            One night there was a terrible commotion from Tony’s apartment. My husband and I peeped out our window and saw the manager with two policemen in front of Tony’s place. I was sure they had found him dead or hurt.
            In the morning we hurried to the manager to find out what had happened. “Oh,” she said – she was a German lady, large with red hair—“nothing to worry about. This happened before.” Our eyebrows shot up questioningly and she explained that Tony had girlfriends who sometimes moved into his apartment. “The giggling and goings-on coming from that place!” she added. Tony apparently wanted his current girlfriend to move out but she refused, thus the hassle.
            It took me a while to absorb her words. My husband laughed but I stood there thoroughly puzzled. I had all these ideas about Old Timers, about Tony, I had to rethink things.
            Now when I see Old Timers huddled over their card games, my first instinct is still a wave of sympathy, but I just think of Tony and I chuckle and wish them a good hand.


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Tags: Filipino, Filipino American, Philippines, Philippine American, immigrants, old timers, old men, Flips
This is all for now,

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